Michael Gilbert

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Michael Francis Gilbert
Born(1912-07-17)17 July 1912
Died8 February 2006(2006-02-08) (aged 93)
Pen nameMichael Gilbert
OccupationLawyer, author
GenreCrime fiction, Mysteries, Police Procedural, Spy fiction
Children7, including Harriett Gilbert

Michael Francis Gilbert CBE TD (17 July 1912 – 8 February 2006) was an English solicitor and author of crime fiction.

Early life and education[edit]

Gilbert was born on 17 July 1912 in Billinghay, Lincolnshire, England to Bernard Samuel Gilbert, a writer, and Berwyn Minna Cuthbert. From 1920–1926 he attended St. Peters school in Seaford, East Sussex, and from 1926–1931 he attended Blundell's School in Tiverton, Devon. He started to study law at London University but was unable to finish due to financial concerns. After becoming a schoolmaster at Salisbury Cathedral School, Gilbert returned to studying law, receiving his degree in 1937 and graduating with honours. It was at this time that he began to work on his first mystery novel, Close Quarters.

Military service[edit]

During World War II, Gilbert served in North Africa and Italy with the Honourable Artillery Company. In 1943, he was captured and taken as a prisoner of war in northern Italy near Parma. Along with another soldier, Tom Davies, he was able to escape after the Italian surrender, their escape involving a five-hundred-mile journey south to reach the Allied lines.[1][2]

Law career[edit]

In 1947, Gilbert joined the London law firm of Trower, Still & Keeling in Lincoln's Inn. Eventually becoming a partner there, he practised law with the group until his retirement in 1983.

Writing career[edit]

Gilbert's writing career spanned the years 1947 to 1999 with his final work being Over and Out. The genres his fiction novels enveloped included police procedurals, spy novels, short stories, courtroom dramas, classical mysteries, adventure thrillers, and crime novels. Following his death, The New York Times quoted one of Gilbert's publishers regarding his writing style: "Michael was an exceptionally fine storyteller, but he's hard to classify. He's not a hard-boiled writer in the classic sense, but there is a hard edge to him, a feeling within his work that not all of society is rational, that virtue is not always rewarded.".[3]

Unlike many other fiction writers of the mystery and crime genre, Gilbert did not make use of a single recurring character. His works, however, did include characters that would appear irregularly: Inspector Hazlerigg; Inspector Petrella; Chief Superintendent Morrissey; Detective Chief Inspector Mercer, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. Posthumously, four collections of his short stories were published. By 2016, his works consisted of 30 novels and approximately 185 stories in 13 collections.[4] In addition to his novels, Gilbert wrote several stage plays along with numerous radio and television plays.

Gilbert was known for writing only during his five-times-a-week commute by train between Kent and Lincoln's Inn. He was quoted as saying that this habit allowed him to "carry out a full and normal day's work as a solicitor, and to devote the evenings and weekends to my family."[5]

While his earlier works were set in courtrooms and the offices of lawyers, his later works depicted police investigations and criminal acts. Some of his novels were set in a boys' boarding school. Others were about a serial thrill killer (The Night of the Twelfth); a television action hero and military advisor to the ruler of an Arab sheikdom (The Ninety-Second Tiger); suspense in Communist Hungary just prior to the 1956 uprising (Be Shot for Sixpence); municipal corruption in a seaside town (The Crack in the Teacup); Etruscan art relics (The Family Tomb); and IRA terrorists (Trouble).


Gilbert apparently had an abiding interest in, and deep knowledge of, music. Many of his earlier books contain scenes, some of them quite lengthy, involving choirs, in churches, cathedrals, boarding schools, and neighborhood organizations. And a number of his secondary characters are accomplished musicians of one kind or another, some of them at the professional level. He also occasionally uses musical references to indicate a sudden change of direction in his present story. In a typical example from Paint, Gold and Blood, the protagonist has just received an unexpected letter from an old school friend and opens the envelope:

A single note from a flute, or perhaps from a clarinet, had interrupted the rhythm of the tympani and the strings to announce the start of a new movement.[6]

Legacy, honours, critical acclaim[edit]

In 1980, Gilbert was made a CBE. Writing honours include a Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association for lifetime achievement in 1994, and being named as a "grandmaster" by the Mystery Writers of America in 1988.

One of Gilbert's earliest works, Smallbone Deceased, was included in crime-writer H.R.F. Keating's list, Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books.[7] In Gilbert's New York Times obituary, his American publisher, Kent Carroll of Carroll & Graf, was quoted as saying, "He was always so utterly urbane and civilized. He wrote about a sordid world from the perspective of a gentleman. There was something comforting as well as exciting about that.[8]

British mystery writer and critic Julian Symons referred to Gilbert as a writer who chose not to offer "personal feelings about the world and society" but to write "what will amuse his audience, and if an idea or a subject seems disturbing it is put aside." Symons went on to state, "Yet there remains an impression that he is not quite content to be appreciated just as an entertainer, but that some restraint (legal caution, perhaps) checks him from writing in a way that fully expresses his personality."[9]

Personal life and death[edit]

Gilbert married Roberta Mary Marsden in 1947; together the couple had two sons and five daughters. One daughter, Harriett, born in 1948, became a novelist and broadcaster for BBC World Service.

Gilbert died at age 93 on 8 February 2006 at his home in Luddesdown, Gravesend, Kent. He was survived by Roberta, his wife of nearly sixty years, and all of their children.[10][11]


Mystery novels[edit]

Collections of short stories[edit]


Bibliographic works[edit]

  • The Short Stories of Michael Gilbert. An Annotated Checklist, 1948–1997, by B. A. Pike, gives details of some 170 short stories (1998)


  1. ^ "Michael Gilbert (obituary)". The Telegraph. 10 February 2006. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
  2. ^ Gilbert, Gerard (21 September 2015). "Following my father's escape from an Italian prisoner of war camp". The Independent. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  3. ^ Douglas Greene of Crippen & Landrau, quoted in The New York Times, 15 February 2006
  4. ^ Introduction by John Cooper to The Murder of Diana Devon and Other Mysteries, Robert Hale, London,, 2009, page 7
  5. ^ Amateur in Violence, Ellery Queen, editor, Davis Publications, New York, 1973, page 4
  6. ^ Paint, Gold and Blood, Harper & Row, New York, 1989, page 83
  7. ^ H. R. F. Keating included it in his Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books
  8. ^ The New York Times, 15 February 2006
  9. ^ Mortal Consequences, A History From the Dectective Story to the Crime Novel, by Julian Symons, Harper & Row, New York, 1972, pages 199–201
  10. ^ Amateur in Violence, Ellery Queen, editor, Davis Publications, New York, 1973, page 4, much of the biographical information is from the Introduction by Ellery Queen to this collection
  11. ^ Michael Gilbert obituary, The Guardian, Friday 10 February 2006 05.22 EST


  • Dove, George N (1984). "Michael Gilbert". In Bargainnier, Earl F. (ed.). Twelve Englishmen of Mystery. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University popular Press. ISBN 0-87972-250-9.